Rome in the sweltering heat and humidity. It was 34 degrees yesterday and again today and we are all slowly being crushed by the weight of it. Men dunk their heads under fountains in endless acts of baptism. The weather is not the only thing weighing the city down – decades of political mismanagement have left it disorganised and chaotic. Nothing works quite the way it should. Putrid dumpsters full of ripe rubbish that should have been collected long ago line the footpaths and, despite its size, public transport is sparse – Google maps often tells me it’s faster to walk. Romans, though, are a tough bunch and seem determined not to let these problems get them down.
We visited the Pantheon yesterday, the pagan shrine home to the world’s first vaulted dome. It is a stunning structure of incredible precision, especially considering it’s almost 2000 years old. Despite its ornate decorative flourishes, I find my gaze drawn upwards to that austere ceiling of concrete, where the light floods in through the void and casts beautiful geometric shadows over the reliefs.
If there was ever a place that selfies should be banned, it’s in front of the Trevi fountain. The endless tourist crap-shoot transpiring there is tiresome and absurd and makes me want to grab people by the shoulders and tell them that their friends will believe them when they say they’ve been there, even without the photographic evidence.
In the late afternoon, we lug our massive backpacks across the Tiber to Trastevere, where we have rented a small apartment. It’s less busy here than in the centre but it’s clearly still a popular tourist destination.
That night we wander the streets of the neighbourhood and look for a place to eat. The bars are full and buskers are playing and it is all so beautiful that it makes me wonder what the city will be like if it’s ever allowed to reach its full potential – imagine the beauty of Rome with the transport network of Paris or London…
Long day at the Vatican yesterday. It was 35 degrees and there is no air conditioning in there – not good for people or the Vatican’s many priceless artworks. The galleries on the way to the Sistine chapel are stunning and ornate and filled with mind boggling riches. It’s all a bit overwhelming and the whole place stinks of the money and power the church has accrued over the last two millennia or so. The crowds throughout are dense and the people self-serving in their approach to sharing their space. At one point, I’m admiring a statute of Apollo when I feel a hand on my shoulder – I’m being used as a tripod.
The basilica is immense, and it’s little wonder it took a hundred and twenty years to build. Of all the amazing sculptures there, my favourite is Bernini’s monument to Alexander VII, with its strange gilded bronze skeleton representing death.
Five days have passed since our trip to the Vatican. We have walked about twenty kilometres a day and have exhausted ourselves a bit, so we took a short walk yesterday to the Villa Farnesina, the summer residence of the once-powerful Farnese family, whose members include a Pope and a Duke of northern Italy.
The villa is notable for two reasons: firstly, it houses some of Raphael’s best frescoes and, secondly, it represented a breakaway from the architectural norms of the time: a square structure enclosing a central courtyard. The Villa Farnesina, on the other hand, is more open: a U-shaped structure comprised of two wings connected by a loggia. Raphael’s frescoes are beautiful and noticeably more expert than those completed by other hands. During the sack of Rome of 1527, the landsknecht troops vandalised some the murals upstairs in red paint that can still be seen today.
Today was a long one: the Coliseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. There’s not much shade inside the Coliseum and you can understand why the Romans erected sails over the arena during summer. In what became somewhat of a pattern in Italy, there was not a lot of information and some of the time I was not sure what I was looking at. The audio guide only contained the basics.
The one for the Forum and Palatine Hill, though, was better and I felt more able to imagine Rome as it was 2000 years ago. Palatine Hill, composed of sediment deposited by the Tiber, is considered the ancient heart of the city. The area is large, peaceful and verdant. Everywhere you look there is a temple or an archway or columns in rows like the ribs of some large, long-dead beast.
Napoli is beautiful. Dirty and makeshift and chaotic but very beautiful. Down the narrow alleys life appears in vignettes: families sit and chat on plastic chairs outside their apartments. Through an open doorway an old lady stands in her kitchen watching a small television.
The National Archaeological Museum of Naples was founded in 1777 in the city’s old cavalry barracks. It houses many of the artefacts from nearby Pompeii, along with one of the largest collections of Egyptian artefacts in the country. We spent most of the day there admiring the incredibly intricate mosaics made from pieces of tile not much bigger than grains of rice, the tiny but intricately carved Egyptian statues and mummified crocodiles.
Although I was wary of the acclaim heaped upon them, I couldn’t go to Naples without trying out its two Michelin accredited pizzerias – Gino e Toto Sorbillo and Da Michele – so yesterday we ran the gauntlet at the later.
Inside, a team of jocular young men make the task look deceptively easy: in the matter of a few minutes, the dough is stretched, the toppings go on – some sauce, some mozzarella, a few leaves of basil and some olive oil (probably infused with more basil, although they would never tell you) – and in it goes. Three or four minutes later, just before being taken out, it is held almost sideways, up to the burning coals for a final blast of heat.
As much as I like a good pizza, I’m not willing to wait three hours for it, so we decided to get takeaway, which turned out to be both the best and worst decision we made: we got it quickly, but it was practically impossible to eat without a knife and fork.
We worked off the pizza calories with a walk up to the Castel dell ’Elmo. The city is devastatingly beautiful from above, stretching out along the coast and disappearing around the base of Vesuvius. Later, we walked down the steps and into the Spanish Quarter, a bustling area of passageways narrow even by Neapolitan standards.
We ate dinner at a packed local restaurant where we got two courses and a bottle of wine for about 15 euros each – one of the best meals we’ve had so far. Afterwards, we take a token the restaurant gave us out to a small coffee cart on the street and drink a very strong complementary espresso and watch the nightlife.